CAMP VERDE - By the time Lewis and Clark emerged from the wilderness, following their epic transcontinental voyage of discovery, most of their cargo had been jettisoned.
The only things remaining, outside of trade items aquired from the Western tribes, were their guns, their knives and their cast iron cookware.
When George Washington's mother divided her estate, she made provisions for passing on her cookware to her heirs. She referred to it as her "iron kitchen furniture."
And early pioneers heading west packed, as an integral part of their larder, a collection of cast iron kitchenware.
There was a time not all that long ago when cast iron cookware was appreciated in a way that few other things were. It came in a variety of shapes and sizes, but the single most important component was an iron pot with a tight fitting lid, widely referred to as a Dutch oven.
The most popular version was a uniquely American invention, its designed credited to the famous patriot Paul Revere, that had three iron legs cast onto the base of the pot and a lid with a cast edge that kept the ashes out of your dinner.
When Bill Stafford first began cooking with Dutch ovens he had little idea of the history behind the tools of his trade. But after nearly 20 years cooking for trail crews, charitable organizations and special events around the valley, he has discovered that he is carrying on a tradition older than America itself.
"I didn't get into the Dutch oven cooking for historical reasons. But once I got into it, the interpretation of its common sense approach to producing a lot of food for a lot of people with relatively inexpensive ingredients, became an added reward," he says.
With Stafford and his partner, Bob Tenner, the history and practicality of the Dutch oven remains as appreciated as ever. And for anyone who has had an opportunity to sample dishes the two have prepared, it's easy to see why.
Stafford has been cooking in Dutch ovens since 1994. That was the year he began pulling duty as a Forest Service employee, cooking for volunteers and agency employees doing backcountry trail work. It's also the same year he began serving Dutch oven meals for Camp Verde's Bread of Life Mission.
Tenner, who moved to the valley from Florida, began helping Stafford in 2004. He didn't have much experience with Dutch ovens when he started, but at no point has he ever been the junior member of the team.
"The first time I cooked with a Dutch oven the meal was burnt biscuits that looked and tasted like hockey pucks," says Stafford, "Like Bob, I got my first taste in the Boy Scouts. I got my cooking merit badge burning biscuits in a Dutch oven.
"I've learned a little since then, but I would still be burning stuff if it I wasn't for Bob. We are partners in this. It's not something one person can do well, and more than two can handle when the number of meals reaches 40 or more."
Together they put on at least 20 demonstrations and meals a year. They still cook for the Bread of Life every six weeks or so.
They still cook for the Forest Service, and they can be seen on a regular basis at Fort Verde, cooking for volunteers and the public, at events like the Buffalo Soldiers, History of the Soldier and this weekend's Fort Verde Days.
They have cooked for as many as 300 people at once, managing upwards of 30 ovens plus cowboy coffee pots at one time. They have cooked stews, roasts, biscuits (unburned), cobblers, and just about anything else that will fit under the lid.
"I'm a slob in the kitchen. I tend to slop things around. So I do well outside," says Stafford, "With Dutch ovens the clean up is easier and anyone who can walk and has at least one good hand can do it. It's not rocket science."
They both have a collection of Dutch ovens, many with histories that date back well over 100 years. Their appreciation runs deep. And it is clear when watching them do their thing that they love what they do.
But the real lure for both of them is the final product -- the dish that emerges once the ash-covered caldron comes off the coals and the lid is opened.
"There is something about a meal coked in a Dutch oven," says Tenner, "It taste better. I don't know if it's from smoke being drawn in under the lid or the oil we treat the ovens with. All I know is that whatever you cook in one has a unique, woodsy flavor you can't get anywhere else."
Stafford and Tenner will be sharing all the benefits and techniques of Dutch oven cooking on Saturday and Sunday, on the parade grounds at Fort Verde State park, as part of the Fort Verde Days celebration.
Stop in and get a taste of two guys who love everything there is to love about a Dutch oven. And, if you make it at the right time, you might also a taste of what keeps their fires burning.
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